Purple Carrot’s Mark Bittman wants to change how you eat

I knew my morning bowl of Special K wasn’t going to impress Mark Bittman, the highly regarded journalist, best-selling New York Times author, and co-founder of Purple Carrot, a startup focused on getting people to cook delicious, plant-based meals at home. But it did get a chuckle out of him during our early morning chat.

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Bittman, on the other hand, had enjoyed a breakfast of roasted delicata squash over toast. This didn’t come as a surprise, since he’s the one of the country’s foremost experts on eating well. His goal? Getting people to eat as “responsibly and ethically as possible.”

Despite his busy schedule of devising original recipes for Purple Carrot, teaching journalism, and lecturing at the University of California at Berkeley, the WeWork Fort Point member shared about his foray into the startup world, his thoughts on the changing food industry, and the best advice he ever received.

What’s the concept behind Purple Carrot, and how is it different from the other meal kits out there?

We think there are three fundamental elements—we only focus on plant-based food, so we come up with vegan recipes. The second is we see this as a way to help the food system. I’ve obviously been talking for a long time about the need for all of us to eat more plant-based food. This is just another way to make it easier for people.

And the third, we have me. Modesty aside, I say, we have a proven name behind the recipes. These are not anonymous recipes—these are my recipes. They’re not being borrowed from anyone or derived from anyone. My team and I are working on them daily I’m super proud of them. They’re great.

Purple Carrot’s Mark Bittman Wants to Change How You Eat

Have any of the recipes been taken from your published cookbooks? Or would you say they’re all original recipes created just for Purple Carrot?

They’re all new.

How did you get involved with this company? 

The short answer is that the founder—whose name is Andy Levitt—asked me, and I said yes. It was a much longer process than that, but that’s the short answer. The story is Andy said, ‘Here’s what we’re doing,’ and I said, ‘That’s a great idea.’ I sort of played around with things for a while, worked on some stuff with him, and I said, ‘This is great. I’m going to do it.”

Were there any bumps along the way? 

I don’t think there were bumps—they were challenges, certainly challenges. There’s a lot to do to get this thing up and running. Quite frankly, I’ve been really surprised at how smoothly our operations have been since we’ve launched. Our website isn’t what I’d like it to be. We haven’t solved packaging. We have bumps in operations. We certainly haven’t solved sourcing, but all these things are true. I never expected this to go from zero to 100 in one day. It’s not so much about solving bumps. We’re doing something that’s hard, different, and interesting, so they’re all going to take time.

Purple Carrot’s Mark Bittman Wants to Change How You Eat

What’s the reception been like since the company launched? 

About 90 to 95 percent positive, I would say. I’m really happy about the recipes and really proud of them. We’re happy about the way our Ops team fulfilled what we’re doing. So I think we’re offering super high-quality produce—there’s nothing to be ashamed of. There’s also progress to be made. That’s what we’re concentrating on. We want to move forward.

And what was the transition like going from the New York Times to a budding startup like Purple Carrot?  

As I’ve written, some of the stuff I had done at the Times had run its course. It felt like a good time to leave. There are a lot of other things in my life that have not changed. I’m still teaching at Berkeley. This is my fourth year of a lecture series called Edible Education 101, founded by Michael Pollan and Alice Waters. I’m also teaching a journalism course on opinion writing, so that’s pretty interesting.

What’s your definition of good food?

I have a simple definition. Good food is fair. It means it treats the people who eat it and the people who produce it well. Good food is green. That means it makes an attempt to minimize environmental impact. Good food is nutritious and that’s self-explanatory, but that doesn’t mean it’s a superfood or anything like that. It means it’s an honest, whole food. Good food is affordable, and good food is delicious.

Purple Carrot’s Mark Bittman Wants to Change How You Eat

How do you always start your day? What’s your go-to breakfast?

I don’t have a go-to breakfast. I’m having mashed delicata squash on toast this morning.

What’s your advice to people who aren’t vegan, but want to start adopting a meatless lifestyle? 

I’m not pushing people to be vegan, and I’m not pushing people to adopt a meatless lifestyle. I’m pushing for people to eat more plants, so that’s what Purple Carrot is about. We’re happy to welcome more vegan friends, but it’s not a push toward veganism. We’re just shifting the balance to get people to move away from junk food and animal products and towards more whole foods, especially plants.

What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in food and journalism since you started in the industry? 

I started in the industry 35 years ago. I would say the Internet is a pretty big change. In the last few years in food and journalism, I would say food is popping up in a more serious way. Well obviously, food is getting much more coverage. People understand that it isn’t just about entertainment and enjoyment, but it’s a very serious topic. I think we’re seeing that reflected in journalism, and that’s a fabulous trend.

Purple Carrot’s Mark Bittman Wants to Change How You Eat

Where do you see the food industry going in the next 10 or 20 years?

Well, it’s self-serving, but I see it going for more plant-based foods. I think we’re starting to see that in the food chains that are doing less animal products and more plants, especially places like Sweetgreen. I don’t think something like Purple Carrot could have existed two years ago, so that’s kind of interesting.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received and who told you? 

Food journalist Ray Sokolov. He said to me 30 years ago, ‘You might want to write about food other than for food magazines.’ And that was really smart.

Photo Credit: Eric Tanner and Aya Bracket

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